Too close for comfort: Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is very nearly greater than the sum of its parts

One of the most consistent pleasures of Levy’s fiction is her complete resistance to unthinking characters, unthinking female characters in particular.

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Deborah Levy has long mined the seam of desire in her work, and not just plain old sexual desire – although that usually puts in an appearance. Rather, her interest inclines towards the various modes and implications of the deep push of longing itself, as well as the manner in which the pursuit of satiation moves her characters, both around themselves and around in the world. And her fiction is usually situated out in a world where international casts of artists, misfits and the occasional boor mix drinks and ­philosophies while playing and, sometimes, losing at life. Her excellent, Man Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home is the obvious example, and certainly the most fully realised of her novels. But this theme of life and thought explored in the absence of home stretches all the way back to Lapinski, the Russian-exile heroine of her debut novel, Beautiful Mutants (1989). Even the England of her stylistically constricted Billy and Girl (1996) has been pushed through some strange Freudian mirror to create a frantic, dystopian version of itself.

It’s a useful device that has served Levy with ever-increasing success since her migration from play-writing to fiction. By reeling her characters just far enough out from the probabilities of daily life – but not quite far enough for them to make a run for it – she backs them into scrutinising what they are, have been or might become. And so it is with Hot Milk.

Set predominantly in Spain, this is ostensibly the story of an Englishwoman, Rose, and her half-Greek daughter, Sofia, and the quest for a cure for the mysterious (possibly psychosomatic) paralysis that intermittently afflicts Rose’s legs. As the maverick Dr Gómez and his “last-chance saloon” diagnostic techniques soon show, Sofia is in as much need of intervention as the terminally self-centred Rose. Sofia has a First, a Masters and an abandoned PhD in anthropology, but works mainly as a waitress and “main witness” to her mother’s many ailments. Even locating the boundary between her mother’s sick body and her own well body has become fraught with difficulty. For Rose this situation holds no ambiguity: all suffering accrues to her and Sofia’s purpose is to provide relief. The scene is set for a classic tale of overbearing mother v put-upon adult daughter, and that, indeed, is what the reader gets; but not only that.

First, there is the great lush writing itself, and then the luxuriation in place. No writer infuses the landscape, urban or rural, with as much meaning and monstrosity as Levy. She remains blessedly immune to the lure of the “urban everywhere”, insisting on the ability of time and place to affect outcomes deeply. So it is only here, on the unrelenting, sun-stripped streets of Almería, to the backing track of a crazed dog barking, with the ever-present threat of lurking medusa jellyfish, and navigating the personal agendas of this particular ragbag of self-possessed – and dispossessed – internationals, that Sofia can no longer avoid the glare of her sabotaged life.

One of the most consistent pleasures of Levy’s fiction is her complete resistance to unthinking characters, unthinking female characters in particular. This trait is visible throughout Hot Milk. She allows line upon carefully crafted line of incisive observation to trip from Sofia’s tongue. In response to her mother’s comment that she cannot imagine her driving, she wonders, “How do we go about not imagining something?” Or her keen-eyed evaluation of a woman in the street: “Who is her body supposed to please? What is it for and is it ugly or is it something else?” With such quality abounding, it’s hard to hold more self-consciously constructed pronouncements – “My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep” or “I felt that she was indeed a gangster and that she was mugging my life” – against her.

Levy deftly twins the mother-daughter, physical-emotional paralysis from the outset, too, so the deep sense of filial bondage is clear. Yet it is Sofia’s obvious understanding of the reasons behind her failure to take on any of the responsibilities that might be expected of an intelligent, well-educated, 25-year-old woman that eventually creates a certain frustration with the narrative. She knows, and we know she knows, what both the problem and the solution are, almost from the first page. It is difficult to remain patient with a woman who colludes in overly extending her own adolescence.

Nevertheless, the way Levy draws the other strands together makes up for this irritation. While Sofia falling head over heels for another deeply self-centred woman may not convince, there is plenty to carry the reader willingly along: the exploration of the nature of hypochondria, the boundaries of parental responsibility (to accusations of paternal selfishness, the new, young wife of Sofia’s long-absent father offers the hilarious rebuttal: “Why would he do things not to his advantage?”) and the cynicism of pharmaceutical giants thwarting practitioners who refuse the doctrine of “A pill for every ill”. Interestingly, this is the second novel in as many years (Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island being the first) to feature anthropologists wielding their trade for alternative, and opposing, purposes.

If Hot Milk never quite succeeds in becoming greater than the sum of its many great parts, it very nearly does, and it is certainly an unmissable addition to Levy’s catalogue. 

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy is published by Hamish Hamilton (218pp, £12.99)

Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, will be published by Faber & Faber in September

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue